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Art imitating life by John Burns

Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder Goes ForthI am always a little wary when the terms “proper” or “scholarly” history are bandied about, usually in tandem with the terms “facts” and “unbiased opinion”.  Late last year there was a little political controversy in the UK regarding the use of the Blackadder TV series as a history aid.  It brought into the spotlight the role of the arts in conveying historical meaning. Apparently when it comes to history the arts suffers from being biased and avoids the “facts”. For me as an outsider it seemed little more than an official distraction. There is a universal trait amongst politicians to raise an emotional issue when they want to take your silverware to the pawnshop. Nevertheless it did raise a heated discussion regarding what we merit as “real” history and what we do not. One commentator lampooned Blackadder as being written by people who “weren’t even there”, strange when the same can be said of most history. Another critic expanded by  saying that whilst the British War poets and  Shakespeare were all good and fine in their place as “art” they were not up to the grade as history and should be left out of the equation. That made me mad, which as an arts lover and history fan is not a good thing to do. For me all history is an act of creativity. Unless you are content to stand in a muddied field and point at a piece of pottery, we all develop stories of the past.

Whilst it would dubious for me to state that King Henry the eighth had a superfluous nipple and rode a unicycle to work each morning, much of what we see as “history” is a created impression drawn from an assortment of knowledge. Look at any recent documentary on prehistoric earth and absent is an old man in a grey suit discussing the thigh bone of a T Rex. Instead we are presented with incredible CGI interpretations of the past. Beyond the photo realism is something that is ultimately a piece of somebody’s imagination. Whilst we have some fossil records our knowledge of prehistory is lacking in even the most rudimentary super 8 “Zapruder” style footage. Prehistoric narratives are often developed using inferences from contemporary animal behaviour. This is because the prehistoric evidence is unavailable.  Is this somehow bad history? Should we miss out on any insight into the past because it is based on observations from something other than physical artefacts? History is a created journey. We should see its narrative as ongoing and use this as an opportunity to explore the past in a variety of ways rather than pigeonhole it.

Society likes to treat the past as a hard and fast linear concept engraved in stone and full of “facts”. The power of history is that it defines our present. How we see today is often validated by our perceptions of yesteryear.  Start playing with the past and it is easy to have an identity crisis. To avoid this I should probably doggedly accept everything my historian friends tell me. But whose history and whose historical identity should I choose? Remaining solely with the status quo of history is ok if it means buying more milk; it is a little more problematic when it comes to global politics. Our perceptions of seemingly unequivocal events are as different as our fingerprints. There is not only “the truth” in history, but a variety of them.

In Australia during the 1990’s there was a history war between the left and right sides of politics. The cause of the conflict was the notion that Australia was taking a “black arm band” approach to its past and nullifying much of its Eurocentric heritage. Historians from both sides went into battle like Don Quixote and a windmill. The result? Not much really. History scholars still ply their same individual viewpoints, which at the end of the day are supported or nullified by the same supporting bodies. There are similar ongoing heated debates surrounding the interpretation of history across the world. Into this maelstrom the troubling concept of history being somehow bias or judgement free is re-entering the cultural consciousness.

There is a need to be seen somehow as historically “right”, even if there exists more than one viewpoint. Many people write history, but the notion of what history is valid is a closely guarded secret. There is still a perception that “good’ history comes from somebody wearing a Harris Tweed sports coat or at the very least the inner workings of a mystical government department. An official voice legitimises the past; somehow making the version we are given more reliable than others. My old WW2 history lecturer once decried a presentation I made as “waffle”. He may have been right but he also argued that whilst there had been a second world war, Germany had not really been involved. I wonder what influenced Dr Gunter? The past is as ambiguous as the present. Even with contemporary events it is often hard to recognise that you live in the same city, let alone country or world as the news. What ties us in with the disparate occurrences down the street or across the globe is not the actions in themselves but our human reaction to them.

Artistic license gets a bad name, it is seen as somehow a manipulation of the “facts”, I would suggest that art is a response to them. Perhaps Monty Python voiced the perils of historic interpretation best.  The team’s Leonardo da Vinci sketch and his addition of a “few Kangaroo’s” to the last supper has served to validate some historians reasoning for a “no fuss” view of the past. Every attempt to explore history creatively apparently interrupts the space time continuum. I plead guilty as charged. What artistic works do is allow a questioning of the “authorative” line of certain versions of history. Like anything they only form part of a balanced diet of the past. Whether it be Blackadder goes forth or Shakespeare we explore between the lines of evidence to the human foibles that create history in the first place. Try and reconstruct what you did yesterday based on a single email or text and you get a very bare bones view of the past. But look into the emotional, human circumstances of that day and suddenly even the most innocuous receipt can suddenly have meaning. Humour, drama, poetry and pictorial representation give history its rightful connection to the present. As long as humans are involved; genius, stupidity, bravery, cowardice, good and evil all remain the same. History superficially seems like a unique circumstance. Yet in understanding historic events, we end up dealing with the often repeated every day life we are all familiar with. Perhaps that is what frustrates the hard cases.

Whilst we all develop narratives of history, studies need to be based in reality. There is no historic value in creative ignorance. Evidence should however be seen from a variety of perspectives. The arts can provide a useful starting point. There is more thought in the creative process than simply “making it up”.  Behind every historic stroke of a pen or thrust of a sword there is a sense of humanity involved. Creative works provide an alternative analysis to be explored, not the definitive answers. Where the “truth” exists in history is in a broad range of interpretation. Whose history is it anyway? The scholars, the public, the winners and losers all play a role in historic narrative. We shouldn’t be dismissive of one portrayal because we don’t like the authorship or get the jokes.

© The History Vault, 2014.

About John Burns

John Burns
John Burns is an English and History graduate from the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. He is currently completing a diploma in Arts Administration and has written for Artlink Magazine on Yoko Ono. He has recently launched a new blog JOHNBURNSNOW found at www.johnburnsnow.wordpress.com. If you would like to offer him advice, money or a job [email protected] will also work.

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